Album Review: Plastic Ono Band
The Dream is Over—But a Fresh Start for John Lennon is What We Really Needed
“The dream is over.” John Lennon marked the end of an era with the debut of his solo record, released on December 11, 1970. Plastic Ono Band is a far departure from the liveliness of “Love Me Do” or “Drive My Car” on earlier Beatles albums, and exhibits all the real, raw emotion and pain that makes this album intense, lyrically and compositionally. In an interview with John Lennon after Plastic Ono Band’s release, radio show host Kenny Everett commented that it “seems to not be as jolly as your last one.” To that, Lennon responds, “you know, life isn’t jolly, it’s a bit of both, this album is a bit of both.” A little bit of both characterizes this album well. It isn’t the Beatles, it’s John Lennon and his own emotions, which may not have fans humming after the first listen, but are certainly enough for powerful, impactful lyrics.
The first track, “Mother,” is perhaps the most penetrating on the album. It begins with church bells that seem to mark the death of the spectacular Beatles myth. A slow ballad with a simple baseline and chords, the power resides in the lyrics, “Mother, you had me/But I never had you,” and “Father, you left me/But I never left you.” Lennon is speaking of his own childhood, of the feelings of loneliness and abandonment, and the pain that he hid away and is just now rediscovering. Lennon’s pain is captured in his vocals as they progress into anguished screams. Track 2, “Hold On,” counterbalances “Mother” with a warm tremolo guitar and soft vocals, paired with reassuring lyrics to “just hold on.” The break from Lennon’s angst is not long, however, and “I Found Out” and “Working Class Hero” express massive disillusionment with religion, drugs, parents, and society. “I Found Out” does this through a series of scathing lines, harsh guitar, and thumping drums. “Working Class Hero” is reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s mellow guitar strumming and dry vocal style. Lennon’s social commentary follows Dylan as well, singing an anthem for the working man, “When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years/Then they expect you to pick a career/When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear.” Although the melody of “Working Class Hero” is hardly memorable, there is no doubt that these are profound statements to be making.
This track is followed by an introspective one, “Isolation.” Reeling from the breakup of the Beatles, Lennon and Yoko were notoriously depressed and isolated in their large home. For the first time, Lennon comments on his own fame and its downsides, “people say we got it made/Don’t they know we’re so afraid.” The slow tempo of this song gains power from the drums, piano, and dramatic dynamics during the chorus. Of all the songs on this album, this one can hold its own as a soulful ballad of pain. It may not be catchy, but it is certainly a force to be reckoned with. The sixth track “Remember” is the closest to the classic Beatles’ sound we know and love, with a fast, driving beat; it’s not quite “Helter Skelter,” but more in the vein of “Help!” with alternating slow and fast tempos. “Remember” is melancholy, a reflection on a less-than-ideal childhood. Despite this, Lennon reminds his listeners not to forget the past, even if it holds pain or regret. “Love” is quite easily the only real love ballad on “Plastic Ono Band”, with dreamy vocals and distant strumming, and lyrics largely directed at Yoko Ono. “Love” and “Well Well Well” are the weakest tracks on the album, without any strong message or real melodic accomplishments. “Well Well Well” is gritty for no apparent reason, other than just to sound like hard rock.
“Look at Me” sounds very similar to Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind” but without the catchy lyrics, sweet-sounding vocals and violin solo. At the very least, the lyrics are this track’s redeeming quality and give us more of Lennon’s heart and struggle with his identity after the breakup of the Beatles. It’s gentle and sad, asking “what am I supposed to do?” over the finger-picking technique and reverb reminiscent of “Dear Prudence” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Unfortunately, this song also lacks a driving baseline or any truly provocative lyrics, but we can cut Lennon some slack and understand that was not his intention in this song. Finally, the last real song of the album, “God” is perhaps the provocative end that we were looking for. To be frank, it is not a melodic masterpiece by any standard, with a lethargic beat and echoey vocals. Yet the middle section of this song is essentially a profession of Lennon’s personal beliefs, or rather, lack thereof. In list form, Lennon disqualifies religion, political figures, Elvis, the Bible, and delivers a final blow to those who had hoped for a Beatles reunion, noting “I don’t believe in Beatles.” In case you didn’t get the point from the rest of the album, “the dream is over”– the dream being the mythical, magical, seemingly invincible entity that was the Beatles.
On first listen, Plastic Ono Band appears to have few noteworthy compositions. However, if you take the time to go back to a few tracks, tune in to “Mother,” “Working Class Hero,” “Isolation,” and “God.” This album is much more honest and true to Lennon’s emotions, “most of us have been through that [referring to suicide] with mothers and fathers, most of us have been through something religion or not with religion, most of us have been isolated, or been in love, most of us remember things… and most of us have wondered what love is, you know?” And the fact is, what we get in Plastic Ono Band isn’t the Beatles, because it never could be. Instead, it’s harsh, it’s raw, and it’s full of emotions that conflict with our ideas about what the Beatles should be. But finally, we get honest music that is not for the crowd or the chart, but from Lennon’s long-withheld stash of emotions. The tracks need a couple of listens, but the lyrics are far more relatable and candid than “Yellow Submarine” or “Twist and Shout” could ever be, and fans of Lennon and the Beatles should be thankful for that.